How they have crashed and burned could not have been envisaged, though. Slugfests of the type Ange Postecoglou’s men served up in their goal-glut Europa League section last season were anticipated. A foray in which they found themselves on the wrong side of a 4-3, and 3-2, as well as coming out on the right side of the latter scoreline. Not least because the Celtic manager had maintained his attack-wired team would “go down swinging”.
It wasn’t fanciful to believe – as has transpired – that they could be left with only one point from four games in their first exposure at this level against far more seasoned campaigners Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk and Leipzig. Yet, it has confounded expectations that they could succeed in swinging so hard, and often – which wasn’t a given – only to miss time and again. Evidenced by them having had 41 shots from inside the box in Group A for the paltry return of two goals. One of these – the opener in the 1-1 draw with Shakhtar in Warsaw last week – of the ‘own’ variety, indeed.
“It is the hardest part of the game,” said the Celtic manager of putting the ball in the net. “It is why clubs spend hundreds of millions of dollars on players who do that. It’s not a case of sitting there and thinking ‘take your opportunities’. It is about experience, composure at this level. The fine lines and the stresses that are involved in playing at the highest level of club football. The hope is experience can get your players to feel more comfortable in those situations. For us, we have been unlucky too. We hit the post twice in the same sequence [against Leipzig] and on any other day they could go in.”
Every single Celtic attacker, and in the Leipzig loss even crossbar-hitting Greg Taylor, has been afflicted by missing-itis. The struggle has proved particularly profound for Daizen Maeda, who could easily have scored in every Champions League outing. But Postecoglou won’t throw the beleaguered Japanese forward under the bus, even if the industrious 24-year-old arrived in January fresh from a 23-goal season that earned him top-scorer status in the J-League.
”I know people look at the end product but he was a bit unlucky on a couple of occasions,” he said of Maeda’s frustrating display against Leipzig in the wide-left role that injury prevented Jota undertaking. “He does put in an enormous work-rate. We felt from last week their right hand side can be a threat going forward and I thought his defensive work was outstanding and that helps us as a team.
“But he’s got to learn the other side of the game which is really important in terms of finishing and the end product. He keeps getting into those positions. In every game he does, but goals are eluding him. But we can’t just sort of scrap him because he is not the finished product. We have to persevere with all our players. Apart from Joe [Hart] you look at the rest of them age-wise and experience-wise and this is a massive jump for them. I am being really ambitious with the way I want us to play. That is going to be testing for them. But I am not discouraged by the way we are going. If anything I am encouraged to keep going down this road.”